Are Electric Scooters Doing Good for the Planet?

Electric scooters and bikes seem like a win for the environment. But it could be a while before we see an impact.

If you live in an urban area, you have probably noticed (or ridden) electric scooters and electric bikes popping up in your neighborhood.

These devices are part of a category of transportation called “micromobility,” vehicles that don’t exceed 15 miles per hour, and are designed for short trips between one and three miles, according to Edmund Selby, founder of scootertalk.org, a blog and forum for e-scooter riders.

In addition to e-scooters and e-bikes, micromobility encompasses electric skateboards, hoverboards — and even electric self-balancing unicycles.

One day, I was standing on a sidewalk in Paris, waiting for the light to change. With hordes of other tourists, I began to cross the busy street.

Just then, a man, shoulders above the rest of us, parted the crowd. He seemed to be sailing — or flying — but he was standing perfectly straight.

He was riding a self-balancing electric unicycle, a small, robot-like wheel tucked neatly between his feet. And he was traveling along much faster and more smoothly than the rest of us.

I looked down at my sneakers. Suddenly, feet seemed an archaic and useless mode of transport. I wondered why electric self-balancing unicycles hadn’t seen universal adoption.

Micromobility enthusiasts believe it’s only a matter of time before these small, lightweight modes of transportation completely take over urban spaces.

According to the National Association of City Transportation Officials, there were 84 million shared micromobility trips in 2018, up 240 percent from 2017.

And micromobility is still growing. But in a country where cars are king, there are safety issues and infrastructural changes to consider before we’re all riding government-issued hoverboards.

 

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Better for the earth?

Vehicles making trips less than three miles long accounts for 46 percent of car traffic in the United States. That’s where micromobility can really make a difference, Selby said. Scooters require much less energy than a car, even an electric car, requires to travel the same distance.

“An e-scooter has a 300-watt electric motor,” he said. “Compare that to a Tesla, which has a 335,000-watt engine.”

They also don’t emit exhaust or contribute to smog problems in cities.

There are other ways micromobility may be better for the environment: electric scooters and bikes don’t require the extra energy it takes to run air conditioning or heating, and they require less infrastructure, because they take up less room on the road.

On the other hand, electric scooters and e-bikes are environmentally costly to make. According to one study, they need to stay on the road at least two years before they represent a decrease in carbon impact.

Unfortunately, publicly available scooters take quite a beating, sometimes ending up in lakes and rivers, begging the question of whether they’re really all that environmentally friendly.

But if e-scooters were to be widely used, they could make a positive impact on the environment. The study determined that “when e-scooter usage replaces average personal automobile travel, we nearly universally realize a net reduction in environmental impacts.”

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A good investment?

Many people are ditching the personal-use vehicle as their primary mode of transportation because of high associated costs, like paying for maintenance and insurance.

But we still value freedom of movement. In the right environments, micromobility offers this freedom at a fraction of the price.

NACTO estimates that annual subscribers to e-bike services paid about $1.25 per ride, comparable to (or even less than) a single bus or subway ticket.

If you choose to buy your own device, you are looking at some up-front costs. Anders Brownworth, who rides an electric skateboard to work as often as possible, has considered replacing his car with a Stromer e-bike, which cost several thousand dollars.

Though it’s a significant investment, it costs a lot less than a new car. And an e-bike has other advantages, like being easier and cheaper to park in a crowded city. The devices also transfer easily onto public transportation or into the workplace. Smaller devices especially can be kept out of sight in your work space.

Brownworth believes it would be a worthwhile investment, because e-bikes can make longer trips than other micromobility devices. When he commutes on his electric skateboard, he takes the subway part of the way. An e-bike could eliminate that need, he said.

Safety first

One of the primary concerns associated with micromobility is that because cities aren’t designed for these vehicles, riders are at risk for accidents and injury. Selby is based in Atlanta, where there have been four e-scooter fatalities in the past year, he said.

A report from Austin Public Health in Texas found there were about 20 injuries per 100,000 trips on e-scooters. Almost half of these were head injuries, and could have been prevented with a helmet.

Micromobility advocates believe the proliferation of e-devices will impact city infrastructure and design over time, making cities safer places for the small vehicles.

For the fun of it

Though there are plenty of practical reasons to try out electric scooters, bikes or skateboards, there’s another great reason: It’s fun.

“When you’re riding, you’re out in the elements,” Selby said. “It’s easier to interact with fellow commuters and start up a conversation with someone at a red light.”

They’re also a reminder of a simpler time. Selby said riding his electric scooter reminded him of using a Big Wheel or go-kart as a kid.

“I grew up skateboarding,” Brownworth said. “So it was natural that I would try whatever came out in the skateboard world. I always rode my skateboard to school, and now I can span at least those distances without much effort. It’s hugely nostalgic.”

A headshot of Jamie Lynne Burgess. PBS Rewire. Jamie Lynne Burgess

Jamie Lynne Burgess is a writer who is fascinated by how places shape culture. She also loves podcasts, personal essays and public libraries. Get in touch on Twitter @jamburgess or follow her on instagram @jamielynneburgess.